The surge of interest among young people at this election is one of the most heartening aspects of the current political mood. For that we must acknowledge that Nick Clegg’s performance in the leaders’ debates – and the debates themselves - have clearly made a difference.
This week I chaired a very lively students’ debate at Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge. A surprisingly large crowd came along to listen to opposing speakers debate the proposition that a hung parliament would be a good thing. Those for the motion comfortably saw off arguments that a hung parliament would lead to economic chaos and instability and that our politics are not suited to coalition or minority government.
What was striking however was that the proponents for the motion regarded a hung parliament as the prelude to the introduction of proportional representation for parliamentary elections and a new way of doing politics – so much so that one of their opponents argued that the debate was not about electoral reform, but a hung parliament. There seemed to me to be a general expectation that our politics could change for the better.
But what about power? One of the few women who participated asked* a very good question. Clegg has broken through very forcibly to demonstrate just how unrepresentative and damaging the current electoral system is. But how does he and his party actually achieve ‘something different’ when that same system keeps the two major parties alternatively in power and robs his party of the seats in Parliament that are their due? Cameron is clearly unmoved by democratic principle; Brown offers a possible deal tailored to protect Labour’s access to power.
Clegg dare not enter into coalition with either of them to try and gain leverage for reform – Mervyn King’s prophetic words are no doubt ringing in his ears! – and anyway the Lib Dems have profound differences with both rival parties. Unless they produce an utterly remarkable breakthrough the Lib Dems are condemned to oppose a minority government or to give negotiated support to one or other of the rival parties – both dodgy and frustrating processes during which their political momentum risks being extinguished by politics as usual. And young people’s expectations too?
* The six debaters for and against the motion were all men; and though women made up about half the audience, I had to intervene to persuade them to join the open discussion.